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Decoding Racist and Xenophobic Dog-Whistles

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Xenophobic Lie: “Immigrants spread COVID”

Dog-whistle politics in America have a long and ugly history. Republican leaders have been using the strategic racism playbook to further their agenda since the mid-60s. Over the last two decades, Republicans have increasingly employed dog-whistles against immigrants as a means to fearmonger, especially before elections.   

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Republican leaders continued to spread xenophobic lies to shift blame from their failure and inaction. Looking to scapegoat elsewhere, they pointed a false, racist finger of blame at immigrants being the cause of the outbreaks when this is simply not the case. At America’s Voice, we have tracked this trend of xenophobic dog-whistling from January 2020 and throughout the pandemic. It is essential to shine a spotlight on the repeated use of these lies to show the negative impact it has on immigrants, marginalized communities, and all Americans. 

Racialized, dehumanizing rhetoric around disease is not a new phenomenon. The US has an extensive racist history around healthcare and crises. The result of this dehumanization and stigma is often the rise of hate crimes and increases in preventable morbidity rates in these marginalized communities. 

Safety measures during a health crisis should be prioritized and include people from all different ethnic and economic backgrounds. Viruses are not discriminatory and can affect everyone, but leaders who spread racist lies also spread a different virus. Everyone has the right to safety and security, especially during a global pandemic. People in positions of power undermine that right when they use racist lies for their own political gains.

Defining Strategic Racism and Dog Whistles

Strategic racism demonizes the non-white “other” in hopes of scaring white voters into voting for certain candidates.

In his book “Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class,” Ian Haney Lopez defines the dog-whistle as a “strategic manipulation of racial ideas for the pursuit of power and material wealth.” Meaning dog-whistles trade in racist ideas, explicitly avoiding naming race directly while invoking negative racial stereotypes that the viewer often reacts to without making a conscious connection of the underlying racial division.

Busting the Myth

From the Trump administration to governors and members of Congress, elected Republicans have used immigrants as a scapegoat for the cause of COVID-19 outbreaks when, in reality, this is simply not the case. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis held multiple press conferences claiming that the “Border Crisis” is the cause of the surge of covid cases and deaths in their states. Greg Abbott has even gone as far as to attack immigrants by implementing executive orders that inhibit ground transportation, justifying this racist policy by claiming he was combating the COVID-19 surge. In reality, instead of implementing racist policies that disproportionately harm immigrants, the GOP leaders could have implemented mask and vaccine mandates that have proven effective in combating the spread of COVID-19. 

The White House Medical advisor, Dr. Anthony Fauci has even made statements against these racist lies by stating:

When you have 700,000 Americans dead and millions and millions and millions of Americans getting infected, you don’t want to look outside the problem. The problem is within our own country. Certainly, immigrants can get infected, but they’re not the driving force of this, let’s face reality here.

Many Republicans spread anti-vaccine misinformation and took up the false claim that immigrants are the second-highest leading cause of COVID-19 transmission, despite there being no evidence to back this claim. As Dr. Iván Meléndez, the local health authority in Hidalgo County, Texas, said at a press conference in August, “Is this a pandemic of the migrants? No, it’s a pandemic of the unvaccinated.” 

A PhD researcher at the University of Bern in Switzerland and co-developer of the virus- tracking site Nextstrain, Emma Hodcroft also made a statement against these harmful lies saying:

I have not seen any phylogenetic signal that Delta arrived from Mexico or from South America – in fact, quite the opposite – the variants that have dominated recently south of the USA are very distinct from Delta – 20B/732A in Mexico until mid-May, Gamma & Lamba in Peru, Argentina, & Chile, Gamma in Brazil, Mu in Colombia, And we have not seen these dominate at all in the USA, as one might expect if immigrants carrying these variants were the leading cause of the case rises in the USA

Examples of Republicans Weaponizing the Narrative 

Exposing these racist lies that GOP leaders spread in their ads help explain how issues like COVID-19 are often weaponized to spread xenophobia. It is essential to hold these GOP leaders accountable for the spread of disinformation. It distracts their constituents on issues that affect their lives like healthcare, minimum wage, paid family leave, etc. 

During the pandemic, we tracked trends on GOP leaders using immigrants as a cop-out for their inaction to deal with issues that arose from COVID-19. Here are some examples of Republican’s peddling this racist lie:

  • 10/27/2021, Kevin Cramer, North Dakota Senator: “Illegal Immigrants are not being tested for COVID at the border and they are not required to get the vaccine. Yet hard working Americans are being forced to get the vaccine in order to keep their jobs. This is unconstitutional. Sign my petition to say NO to Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate!” – Facebook ad from Sen. Kevin Cramer

  • 08/17/21, Republican Governors Association: “Forty percent of migrants released in Texas border city test positive for Covid- 19” – Republican Governors Association

  • 09/13/21, House Judiciary Republican Party: “The Biden Administration is mandating that YOU get the #COVID19 vaccine. But not illegal Immigrants.” – House Judiciary GOP
  • 09/15/21, National Republican Congressional Committee: “ICE facility housing illegal migrants in El Paso has the second-highest # of detainees with COVID in the US… & migrants released into the U.S. aren’t required to get a COVID vaccine.” – NRCC
  • 08/09/21, August Pfluger, Texas District-11 Congressman: “Hundreds of thousands of migrants are pouring into Texas and thousands of them have tested positive for COVID-19…Texas border city says more than 7,000 Covid-positive migrants released since February 1,500 in last week… Tell Viden to address the mess at the border” – August Pfluger

You can find more examples of COVID being weaponized as racist dog-whistles in 2021 here and in 2020 here.

The Lie By the Numbers 

In 2020 we found 59 TV ads that used xenophobic dog-whistles when talking about COVID-19. For example:

  • 10/04/20, Kelly Loeffler, Georgia senator candidate:“China is responsible for the deadly COVID-19 pandemic that has infected our President, First Lady, and millions of Americans – and that’s why Kelly’s fighting to hold the Chinese government accountable. Join her below!” – Kelly Loeffler
  • 07/24/20, Tom Cotton, Arkansas Senate: “I’m standing up to the communist Chinese who have lied about the Wuhan virus from the very beginning.” – Tom Cotton
  • 05/05/20, Derrick Van Orden, Wisconsin-03 Congressman: “The consequences of communism affect us all.  We MUST hold communist China accountable for suppressing information and intentionally deceiving the world.” – Derrick Van Orden

In 2021, from March through October, we found 117 messages that use xenophobic dog-whistles when talking about COVID-19. Unfortunately, we are likely to find many more, especially if we experience another spike in cases. We will continue to update our searchable database with these xenophobic dog-whistles here.

Consequences of This Lie

The COVID-19 pandemic displayed many issues that disproportionately affected marginalized communities. Despite facing the lack of resources, these groups experienced discrimination through the politicization of the virus. 

  • Since January of 2020, racial slurs and hate crimes towards Asian Americans skyrocketed. Asian Americans experienced issues like wrongful workplace termination, physical violence, and many other forms of discrimination because of GOP leaders spreading misinformation through TV ads and other forms of media. 
  • By March 19, 2020, a report stated by the Stop AAPI Hate tracker, that there had been over 700 hate crime incidents against Asian Americans.
  • By April 2020, there were over 72,000 posts with the hashtag #WuhanVirus and 10,000 others with the hashtag #Kungflu. These hashtags gained popularity after the Trump administration and other GOP leaders would use this racist deflection in ads and social media platforms. 
  • In May 2020, with shelter-in-place policies being enforced, Asian Americans were more likely to face discrimination in businesses, especially stores, rather than at schools and public transit as previously observed. Nearly 100 reports daily, with 5.5% from limited-English speakers.
  • From April – June 2021 hate crime reports increased from 6,603 to 9,081 cases.

An Ugly History of This Ugly Lie

The demonization of disease has an ugly history of being weaponized on different groups. Xenophobia leads to inaction by shifting blame onto groups which leads to discriminatory health responses. These biased health responses end up causing more harm to specific groups when in reality, viruses can affect everyone equally. Here is a brief history of  how health crises have been politicalized against different groups: 

  • 1849 Cholera: Anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiments led to the cholera mortality rate of 40% in impoverished areas that were predominately Irish. 
  • 1880s Tuberculosis: Black Americans were affected 2 to 3 times higher than white Americans due to disproportionate distribution of nutrition and sanitation due to wealth disparities.  
  • 1892 Typhus: Anti-semitism perpetuated by NYC sanitary authorities blamed the Typhus health crisis on Jewish immigrants. 
  • 1916 Polio: President Theodore Roosevelt blamed impoverished Italian and Polish immigrants for the polio epidemic.
  • 1980s AIDS Crisis: During the height of the Aids pandemic, Republicans used homophobic slurs to ignore the increase of death tolls in the LGBTQ+ community.

Why do Republicans Use Strategic Racism Around the COVID-19 Pandemic?

Republicans and their allies often use dog-whistles as an electoral strategy to divide voters along racial lines to invoke fears of the “non-white other” while distracting voters from the lack of actual solutions that would improve their own lives. Republicans often manipulate current issues like COVID-19 to push a cynical political agenda that feeds their own selfish benefit. 

From the beginning, GOP leaders spread xenophobic lies and misinformation that lead to anti-vaccine and, anti-immigration sentiment. Misinformation is its own form of virus, spreading fear and hate throughout many communities. Instead of focusing on issues that would have brought their constituents together, they sought to distract from their failures. Republican leaders spent thousands on misleading and xenophobic political ads during the 2020 campaign and continued the practice throughout 2021. 

Having apparently no interest in ideas that would improve the lives of their constituents they turned to strategic racism in an attempt to save their own political power. In 2021, the need for distraction continued as COVID infections continued to spike because Republicans did not have the courage to push back against an anti-vaccination and anti-mask base. Again employing strategic racism, many Republicans falsely blamed immigrants at the border.  Though the face has changed, the racist blame game is much the same.